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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Keyboards | Keyboard Layouts | Alphanumeric Key Layouts ]

Dvorak(-Dealey) Alphanumeric Layout

As mentioned in the section on the QWERTY keyboard layout, that universal design is really rather inefficient; the keys are located in rather strange places and as a result, a lot of finger motions are needed to complete most typing tasks. While QWERTY still dominates PC keyboard alphanumeric layouts, there is an optional layout that some people prefer. It's called the Dvorak-Dealey keyboard layout, with the name often simplified to just the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Here's a brief history of this alternative to QWERTY. In the 1930s, two efficiency experts named August Dvorak and William Dealey conducted a study of workplace efficiency in the office. One of their first discoveries was the strange QWERTY keyboard layout, which seemed to have been designed with at best no consideration for efficient typing. They began work on an alternative keyboard layout, and after many years published a new design called the American Simplified Keyboard or ASK. This design eventually became called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard or DSK, named after Dr. Dvorak, who spent much of his life working on it, and then trying to promote it. (No, it's not named after PC industry pundit John C. Dvorak, but I read somewhere that they might be related. Perhaps if Mr. Dvorak reads this he could let me know. :^) )

The goals behind the Dvorak design are relatively common sense ones: move the most commonly-used letters to the home row where they are easy to reach, and exile infrequently-used keys to the outer reaches of the layout. Dvorak refined the design over many years until he came up with a design that he felt was ideal.

Now the interesting thing is that quite a lot of controversy swirls around the Dvorak design. Proponents of this layout consider it vastly superior to the QWERTY arrangement, and many have spent years in frustration attempting to overcome the inertia of the QWERTY design--including Dvorak himself, who lived a rather quixotic life trying to sell his improved design to an industry that just wasn't interested. At the same time there are skeptics that say the advantages of the Dvorak keyboard have been overstated. Some even claim the studies showing the superiority of the Dvorak design were conducted incompetently, or even dishonestly! I don't really know the truth behind all the claims and counter-claims, so I am not going to touch this controversy with a ten-foot pole. But I did want to mention that Dvorak is not universally acknowledged to be superior to QWERTY.

Those who like the Dvorak design make many claims regarding its superiority, and from a common-sense standpoint, they do make sense. The Dvorak design is supposed to allow faster typing with more accuracy, since 70% of keypresses are on the home row of the keyboard, compared to 31% with QWERTY. The layout is organized with the vowels on one side of the keyboard so that more alternation between right and left hand is used in typing common words. The reduced motion of the fingers is claimed to allow for greater comfort on the part of the typist, and some go so far as to say that using a Dvorak design will alleviate the symptoms of repetitive stress injuries associated with keyboards. I would have to see some valid medical evidence to be convinced of that, but again, it makes some intuitive sense to me.

An illustration of the standard Dvorak keyboard layout. This is not a picture of
an actual physical Dvorak keyboard, but rather a composite illustration I made
from a photograph of a regular QWERTY keyboard. The labels in blue are
keys that differ from those of the standard QWERTY keyboard layout.

As for the drawbacks of the Dvorak design? Only two, really, but they're both doozies. First, you have to re-learn how to type--this is of course the major problem that Dvorak proponents have faced all along. The claim is made that after a couple of weeks of "growing pains" with the Dvorak keyboard, you regain your old speed under the QWERTY design, and then surpass it. However, most people are averse to making the investment of effort needed to re-learn a new keyboard layout. (In fact, most folks dislike change in general, and are reluctant to make a short-term sacrifice for long-term gain, especially if there is no guarantee of long-term benefits!)

The other major issue with Dvorak is that after you retrain your fingers and brain to the new layout, you still have to deal with all the millions of QWERTY keyboards out there. If you do all your work on one PC this is not all that big of a deal, but many people occasionally use more than one machine, or share a machine with others who may have no interest in Dvorak. This can obviously cause serious problems for the person who has become accustomed to the Dvorak layout. Again here, some Dvorak proponents claim that one can get used to Dvorak and still maintain "respectable" speed using QWERTY.

For those that do decide to go with a Dvorak design, there is the practical matter of switching the PC from the QWERTY layout to the Dvorak one! There are two traditional ways of doing this. The first is a hardware solution: get a keyboard that has been physically designed to implement the Dvorak layout. These are not hard to find. Of course you are buying hardware and that's not free, but keyboards are fairly cheap. And you can move the keyboard from one machine to another with a minimum of fuss.

Tip: You can also create the equivalent of a hard-wired Dvorak keyboard by using a programmable keyboard.

There's a cheaper (and perhaps easier?) solution however. Most operating systems can be set to operate under the assumption that they are connected to a Dvorak keyboard, even if they are connected to a regular QWERTY unit. This is done either by changing a system setting, or using a software driver. With Windows it is particularly easy to do, because the keyboard layout is user-selectable. You just tell Windows that you want to use the Dvorak layout, and your regular keyboard will function as a Dvorak unit. Since the keys send scan codes, it's a fairly simple matter to tell Windows to change its interpretation of these codes to match the Dvorak layout. See this section for more.

Of course, if you change the layout to Dvorak in software, you still have the small problem of your keyboard's keycaps still looking like QWERTY. No big deal for a touch typist, but a definite issue for some, especially when you are learning. Here's where the value of the removable keycaps of modern keyboards comes in! You can simply remove the keycaps and re-arrange them to match their software setting. There are also companies that sell stickers that you can place on the keycaps.

For lots more information on the Dvorak keyboard layout, see this page. Bear in mind that this site is definitely a "pro" in the Dvorak debate, though I think they are fair about its limitations. For a more skeptical look at the matter of QWERTY vs. Dvorak, see this article. (You know, I may have to try the Dvorak layout myself sometime, as just writing all this has made me very curious, and I never learned how to type QWERTY properly. I'm fast, but my typing technique is just abysmal. I tell people I can hunt and peck at 80 words per minute. :^) )

Next: Single-Handed Dvorak Alphanumeric Layouts


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